Algerian vote touted as fair, but voters apathetic

May 10, 2012 - 7:26 AM
Algeria Elections

Algerians walk past electoral posters in Algiers, Wednesday, May 9, 2012. Algeria is gearing up for parliamentary elections on Thursday that promise to be the freest ever. But the legacy of the 1991 elections nearly won by Islamists before a military coup ended the voting hangs heavy: Memories still fester of how Islamist candidates were thrown into prison and the nation plunged into more than a decade of civil war.(AP Photo/Sidali Djarboub)

ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — Algeria's parliamentary elections on Thursday are being billed as the fairest in 20 years, but Algerians appeared to be showing little interest and even outright scorn for the vote.

There are 44 political parties competing for 462 seats across this vast oil-rich North African nation of 35 million people, Africa's largest by area. Some 500 international observers are monitoring an election the government has promoted as vital to the country's future and key to constitutional reform.

But most Algerian are distrustful of politics and largely ignored a three-week campaigning period that ended on Sunday. Party rallies were rarely full and in some cases candidates were heckled and even pelted with rocks by disaffected citizens.

The main competitors in the election are two government affiliated parties squaring off against a three-party bloc of Islamist parties known as the "Green Alliance." No party is expected to dominate the parliament, though the real question will be if the turnout surpasses the anemic 35 percent of 2007.

There is a deep distrust of politicians and politics in Algiers after years of rigged elections and rubber-stamp parliaments that have done little more than approve the policies of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Despite its hydrocarbon wealth, there is widespread dissatisfaction in the country and frequent demonstrations and riots over unemployment, poor utilities and lack of housing. While unemployment is only officially at 10 percent, it rises to at least 20 percent among those under 30, some 70 percent of the population.

Marwan Bou Amama, 32, sitting in a hillside park near a voting station, said he refused to cast a ballot.

"We here in Algeria, we live in a huge coffin. We are the living dead," he said. "At my age I should be married, I should have a house. It's a basic right."

Those who did cast ballots evoked a sense of duty and the future of this nation that has lived through long years of an Islamist insurgency.

"I am voting for my children, for their future, it's not for me," said Omar Blaeaki, an elderly retiree at a polling station at a stately old school in central Algiers. "This time around it is more sincere and honest than before, we are voting like they do in America or France."

The last truly fair elections in 1991 were dominated by a populist Islamist party known as the Islamic Salvation Front, but the military stepped in, canceled the voting and banned the party, prompting more than a decade of civil war that killed an estimated 200,000.

No party has since been able to mobilize Algeria's disaffected citizens to the same degree.

The historic party of the independence fight from colonial ruler France, the National Liberation Front, with its deep network across the country, has since won the most seats.

"I am voting for the country, to make things better, we had al-Qaida and terrorism but now it's better and it will get better with this election," said Mohammed Zemmouchi, a retiree, on the street outside a downtown polling station.

Inside, voters separate into men's and women's rooms and choose Xeroxed sheets of every party list. They take the sheets and an envelope into the voting booth, choose one and throw away the others, then place their choice into an envelope for deposit in a clear plastic ballot box.

But, Ashraf Lahgui, 25, unemployed, dismissed the election as a sign of nothing but unkept promises.

"In Algeria, it's the law of the strong," he said.